The Hermeneutics of Questing
The following is a Hermeneutical Analysis of the Starting Quests of Wrath of the Lich King. I know that sounds boring but hear me out!
The object of today’s column is a simple one; to make as comprehensive an analysis as possible (within a limited space) of Blizzard’s opening quest line for new Horde arrivals to Northrend. As many of you may be aware of I’ve complained about the rather lifeless inclusion of flavor text for quests in the Burning Crusade and much of vanilla World of Warcraft before, as evidenced by the following quote:
“…as a player who has never encountered this content before I’m inclined to try my hardest to not only experience it, but to understand it as well. I stopped reading quest logs quite some time ago, instead being content to read through WoWwiki when I have a desire to learn some lore…and it is actually very interesting, I just wish Blizzard put some more effort into getting the lore into the game itself!”
Some clarification is in order as many commenters judged me on this quote. Several of you condemned me for admitting to not reading the quest logs while simultaneously giving a negative critique of the quest implementation which, in retrospect, is an utterly valid point. However this misunderstanding is mostly due to my lack of explanation. You see I stopped reading quests in their entirety after dozens of hours of gameplay---not immediately upon entering the game. Some of the less straightforward quests obviously require a skim to figure out what to do (even with quest tracker’s help), so that point alone should have been obvious to readers. Initially I took it upon myself to do my best to immerse myself in the lore as much as possible in-game, but after seeing the same uninspired text over and over I lost the drive to even bother. That should have been made clear in that column, my apologies. However the comments made have inspired me to give questing another push and with my arrival to Northrend I vowed to give Blizzard another chance and some more attention, so the Wrath of the Lich King will be a fresh start, a new attempt at questing with a clear mind and an objective standpoint with hopes of ascertaining a more logical deduction of Blizzard’s story telling skills.
And the only way to start is to watch the opening cinematic, I have to get into the mood!
Needless to say Blizzard has a flare for the dramatic! They do have a history of making tremendous CGI cutscenes, so this is no small surprise, but no matter how many times I see that movie it is chilling and moving. I’m off to a great start, so fast forward to my first steps into Northrend and see what I saw below…
There was more snow in the trailer…
I have to admit, this was hardly an encouraging or invigorating site. I was expecting…well…anything other than this. Something snowy at least, although I can admit that if the entirety of Northrend was covered in snow that would become monotonous and boring rather quickly, so I’ll forgive the rather lackluster entrance into the new continent. I can’t help but think of the day one players though, did all of you who played Wrath of the Lich King on the first day get to Northrend and go “OH MAN GREEN PLAINS AND A BASIC TOWN **** YEAH!” or were you less than impressed? Either way Howling Fjord was the place to be, so I grabbed the first three quests and got to work. I started off by writing down the quest names and descriptions of each on in a quest log (yes, I wrote a quest log) so I could look back easily and see if there was any of the following qualities present: continuity, purpose, (logical) progression, relevance to the main event of the expansion, backstory, or any notable names, ideas, or themes. Next I just went off and did the quests. I made sure to read every single word of the flavor text as well as everything said by the NPCs I was questing for/with and trying to note elements in the environment that might add to the experience. Surprisingly I was pleased with what I saw!
All of the quests branching from the initial three quests followed logical ends, even if I wasn’t sure of the direction/origin of the conflicts as a player. One exception I felt was the quest “Let Them Eat Crow” which had me walking plaguehounds and killing crows for them to eat because they weren’t getting proper sustenance from the kennel master. There was no explanation beyond “the doggies get only kibbles, no bits, so go feed them!” which was disappointing. Even though the quest led to finding a map which showed evidence of a Vrykul offensive on our position (whoever the Vrykul are) it still felt like it was shoe-horned in with no real reason other than to propagate this later questline. Dissimilarly the questline about the “New Plague” was interesting for two reasons; one I already had seen the cutscene where the undead faction unleashes the new plague bombs on Horde and Alliance alike outside of Ice Crown Citadel, so my curiosity regarding this plot point was already piqued, and two it was simply a genuinely intriguing story.
If there is one questline I’m going to make sure to follow to its end, it will definitely be this one. The third starting questline “War is Hell” made sense in context of the Scourge and Arthas’ undead army but it wasn’t terribly entertaining. Likewise it didn’t seem to go anywhere other than “Okay so now you need to travel way over here to talk to this guy for more orders…so get going!” which isn’t very encouraging when you’re playing for story (as I was in this experiment). There also wasn’t anything groundbreaking mechanics-wise for any of these quests. I burned some bodies with a quest item torch, I shot down some crows, bombed ships from the back of a bat, followed a painfully slow dog a moderate distance, escorted a dull apothecary out of enemy territory, and slew many foes that gave off no air of power, dread, or importance. I’ve definitely done all of this before, but Blizzard gets points for sheer variety within the small sample size.
Regardless I felt that the text carried the experience further than any of the physical mechanics ever could in this instance. I recognized some names, got a peek into some interesting personalities, and did get nice atmospheric vibes from the “New Plague” questline. Here there was actually a sense of impending doom from the quest giver, and he was constantly mentioning why we were here and that there was a purpose to the collective mission while simultaneously pointing out some reasons the Horde was in on it for themselves. This intertwining of motives lead to a nice bit of characterization for the two sides concerning the conflict which, as a player with a lack of knowledge concerning the events of said expansion, I was more than glad to know about. Regardless of these theatrical and dramatic improvements over the questing I’d done in the past it was still extremely monotonous and rather boring (although this is probably just my preferences as a player shining through). Lucky for me I rolled a goblin rogue when I was bored one evening…
Stranded on a desert island after your technological utopia goes to hell? Interesting!
Boy oh boy was I surprised at the goblin starting area! My last experience with it was driving around in a car looking for someone to pick up, never finding them in that convoluted city, and just giving up. This time I actually took the time to figure out where things were, read the text, and pay attention. It was definitely worth the effort! The goblin starting area gave off this odd Happy Days-Chain Gang vibe that was simply infectious, not to mention the humor present along with the pop culture references definitely lightened up the mood. Even though I’m not terribly sure who Deathwing was or why I should care that he’s destroying the world (other than the fact that duh, he’s destroying the world) seeing him fly over my game of robo bomb ball was…unnerving. Then getting enslaved and stranded, gosh, talk about a shift in tone! I was planning on doing a follow-up evaluation of the quest lines of Cataclysm in the future to see how Blizzard did on their most recent expansion, but it looks like that will be unnecessary if the quality of the content is up to par with the goblin starting area!
Even now I don’t like questing, but doing this exercise proved I was definitely too hasty judging the endeavor before. You’ll still find me on the fields of battle or in a dungeon but I’ll assuredly stop by for a quest every once in a while, promise!
P.S. Hey Blizzard, would it kill you to, I don’t know, say, double or triple the flavor text for the quests with some promise? The blurbs are nice when it is just filler but when something really interesting is going on I wouldn’t mind a page or two of backstory, thanks!